Pack Small and Paddle Hard With an Inflatable Kayak

You may already own a boat, a hard-shell canoe or kayak that spends most of its time languishing in the backyard due (at least in part) to the hassle of getting it to the water in the first place. Or perhaps you’ve avoided buying that great albatross of outdoor gear, recognizing that a boat is larger and more unwieldy than all your other equipment combined. You can’t exactly toss it in your car trunk as you head out. But with an inflatable kayak, you can do just that. Not only that, today’s inflatables are lightweight, extremely durable, and often safer and less expensive than their hard-shell counterparts.

TOUGH ENOUGH Today’s quality inflatable kayaks can withstand serious abuse, due in large part to the bomb-proof construction of their air compartments. Various materials are used for the boats’ outer layer—PVC, polyurethane—and then laminated to a heavy-duty base fabric of woven polyester. On most inflatables, an internal bladder of urethane or vinyl sits beneath this outer layer to contain the air. All of these materials are extremely puncture-resistant, and readily handle rocks, fishhooks, bottom scrapes, and other recreational hazards. For a boat to leak, all of its layers need to be pierced; even if this occurs, most models feature multiple, self-contained air chambers for redundancy and safety. As a general rule, the higher the denier (the size of the thread in the base fabric), the tougher the boat. For lakes and mellow rivers, quality inflatable kayaks typically feature 900-1,200 denier fabric and start around $500. As the price goes up, so does the denier—and by extension the toughness and long-term durability of the boat. Expect to pay $800-$1,200 for models designed for serious expedition use; experienced paddlers routinely run Class III+ rapids in these high-end versions.

PUMP ME UP Inflatable kayaks pack down into storage bags the size of a suitcase and weigh roughly 25 to 50 pounds, depending on the model (the lightest varieties come in at about 15 pounds). All of them require a separate pump for inflation. A basic (but perfectly adequate) hand pump starts around $25; larger and more powerful models run upward of $100. Other styles plug into an electric socket or attach to a car’s cigarette lighter or battery. The size and weight of inflatable kayaks make them ideal options for cramped apartment dwellers or other storage-challenged paddlers, and they can easily be transported on a plane for adventures farther afield. Inflatable kayaks are generally more stable and less tippy than their hard-shell cousins, and can handle heavier gear loads due to their greater buoyancy. Though most versions lack a cover or spray skirt to keep out water, many offer a self-bailing feature to drain any water taken on board. And even if fully swamped, an inflatable will still float, making self-rescue much easier in a worst-case scenario.

BLOW ME DOWN Inflatable kayaks are not without their drawbacks, however. They are generally slower and do not track as well as more streamlined hard-shells; straight-line paddling requires more skill and effort, especially in choppy waters. Due to their buoyancy, they tend to sit higher above the water and act more like a sail than a traditional kayak, making them more challenging to handle in windy conditions. And once you’re at the put-in site, more time—and a pump—are required to prepare for launch (though most inflatables are ready to go in less than 15 minutes). Lastly, an inflatable boat requires more care away from the water; you can’t just toss it behind the shed for the winter. But overall, inflatables are fun, tough, and safe—and may just provide the air-raising experience you’re looking for.

Courtesy of the Appalachian Mountain Club

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